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Federal Judge Won’t Let Prosecutors Use Digital Cameras Seized from Accused U.S. Capitol Rioter Seen Boasting About ‘Fighting Cops’

Paul Russell Johnson

Paul Russell Johnson, seen on the right with a U.S. flag bandanna over his face, boasts about “fighting cops” in a YouTube video.

Prosecutors cannot use digital cameras seized from an accused U.S. Capitol rioter seen boasting on YouTube about “fighting cops and shit,” a federal judge ruled on Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Jia Cobb, a Joe Biden appointee, was among the slate of judicial nominees with a legal background as public defender, as part of the 46th president’s effort to promote diversity on the federal bench.

Now that sensitivity to the due process rights of the accused has redounded to the benefit of Paul Russell Johnson, a Virginia man whom the government identifies as having had a key role in the failed effort to block the certification of Biden’s victory.

“The defendant opened the floodgates to the January 6 riot,” the Justice Department wrote in a 31-page brief that opposed Johnson’s motion to suppress that evidence. “What followed were hours of terror, violence, and destruction as thousands of rioters made their way onto the Capitol grounds and inside the U.S. Capitol Building.”

Johnson is now being prosecuted together with Ryan Samsel, James Tate Grant, Stephen Chase Randolph, and Jason Benjamin Blythe, who all allegedly worked together to overturn the barrier, knocking officers to the ground.

Samsel is alleged to be the attacker of U.S. Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards, the first witness expected to testify at tonight’s debut hearing of the Jan. 6 Committee.

In his recent motion, Johnson claims that he never entered the Capitol and left when it got “unruly.” He disputed the admission of evidence authorities obtained during a pre-dawn raid on April 13, 2021, which his defense attorney asserts “deeply traumatized the kids and parents of a family” with assault weapons and an armored vehicle.

“That unreasonable pre-dawn raid is paradigmatic of the unreasonable search and seizure of Mr. Johnson’s electronic devices,” his defense attorney Kobie Flowers, from the Washington-based firm Brown Goldstein and Levy, wrote in a 19-page brief. “That excessive show of force of that pre-dawn raid is a metaphor for the overbreadth of the search warrant in this case.”

Johnson argued that the search warrant did not authorize the seizure of certain electronic devices, including a a desktop computer, two digital cameras, and four walkie-talkies.

But Johnson’s limited victory was decidedly mixed.

“I’m granting Mr. Johnson’s motion with respect to the cameras and denying with respect to the other issues,” Cobb announced at the start of the proceedings.

The judge said that there is not much evidence suggesting that Johnson used the walkie-talkies, but the warrant specifically referred to them as an item to be seized. She ultimately found that this met the deferential standard for evidence at this stage.

“I find this affidavit to be quite detailed and lengthy,” Cobb said, finding the officers acted in “good faith” by seizing them.

Whether the walkie-talkies are relevant and admissible at trial is a separate issue, Cobb added.

As for the portion of the ruling in Johnson’s favor, Cobb said: “I don’t believe a digital camera is a ‘mobile device,'” at least not as is “commonly understood.”

“I thought that was a bit strange,” the judge said, noting that the phrase is typically defined as smartphones and tablets.

The Jan. 6 Committee’s first public hearing will start at 8 p.m. Eastern Time. Congress members are expected to make the case that former President Donald Trump was “at the center” of a “coordinated, multi-step effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election,” culminating in the attack on the Capitol.

(Photo via DOJ)

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."